Symphony No. 2

James MacMillan (1959)

Symphony No. 2 1999

2(II=picc).2(II=corA).2(II=bcl).1.dbn- t.bells/bell-tree/bongo/SD/BD/cyms/tam-t-harp-strings

The first movement is short and preparatory. It opens with the first of many mournful, tolling bell strokes and is followed by a mounting clamour of high woodwind calls. This then merges with the pitter-patter "rain-drops" of high pizzicato strings before settling to the main substance of the movement. This is carried by a sad chorale on brass (and later other winds), punctuated by rippling flurries on flutes and clarinets, and brittle repeated chords high on the harp. These various ideas are gathered up into a more expressive statement before the music subsides and fades.

The sense of elegy and desolation is continued into the more extended second movement, but this time there is more - ferocity and violence. The music progresses and develops as a series of ruminative fragments and memories of previously stated material – melancholic two-note figures (which come from the bell idea), long arching, floating melodies which hang in the air without ever quite resolving, snapping semi-quavers on woodwind and brass, and "military" bursts of snare-drum.

Twice a low, lurching rhythmic pulse gets going over which a menacing, martial theme on the brass is built, but again the music drifts dreamily in other directions with smooth cantabile fragments or other nervous activity in suspended animation. These ideas all exist as if on a short fuse, edging uneasily into a dialogue. An ominous pulse on brass, low woodwind and bass drum is set up from which a florid melody appears on cor anglais. Again this is interrupted by material marked "floating, light, delicate" or "intense (dolente)" or by a single percussive idea evoking a distant marching band.

This interaction of contrasting ideas continues and is gradually whipped up into a more and more frenetic and emphatic interplay. This activity is eventually gathered towards a loud, violent shuddering chord from which the music winds down through the descending strings. A slow, calm stasis follows marked "patetico" and "desolate". The ominous pulse returns as the snare drum grows out from the distance, gradually becoming more dominant and loud before a sudden halt.

The third movement is a brief postlude, almost an afterthought to what has been heard. The same mood prevails. The general sweep of the music is from low to high, taking in some free, aleatoric scurrying, the briefest evocation of a compound dance rhythm and some "tristanesque" moments of repose. The cellos (later joined by violas) emerge with a series of internal pedal points which at certain moments become more "melodic".

Piccolo, tubular bells and harp play out on some of the principal memories of the earlier movements over some genuine quotations from Tristan and Isolde which are subjected to some queasy stretching and sliding on the strings.

Taking my lead from composers such as Boulez and Berio I have built this work on an earlier, shorter piece – my Piano Sonata of 1985. The original is "opened up" to new forms of expansion, sometimes according to colouristic potential, other times to dramatic or even originally unseen potential. Sometimes new layers are added, such as the march, sometimes material has been projected into new contexts.

James MacMillan, 1999

(This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer)

2/3/4.12.99 Ayr, Glasgow, Edinburgh: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / James MacMillan
4.10.00 RNCM, Manchester: BBC Philharmonic / James MacMillan
6/7.1.01 St Paul, MN, USA: St Paul Chamber Orchestra / Joseph Swensen
4-7.4.01 Swedish tour: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / James MacMillan
12.5.01 Amiens, France: Orchestre de Picardie / James MacMillan
12.8.01 Santa Cruz, CA, USA: Cabrillo Festival Orchestra / Marin Alsop
25.8.02 Edinburgh International Festival: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov
18.3.04 Canterbury: Southbank Sinfonia / Nicholas Cleobury
23.7.04 Aspen Music Festival, CO, USA: Aspen Chamber Symphony / Hugh Wolff
6.1.05 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London: Orchestra of St John's / John Lubbock
10.2.05 Carnegie Hall, New York: Orchestra of St. Luke's / Donald Runnicles
20.2.05 Utrecht, Netherlands: Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra / James MacMillan
13.9.08 Milwaukee, WI, USA: Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra / Richard Hynson
13.11.08 Obereo, Sweden: Swedish Chamber Orchestra / James MacMillan
15.10.09 Vasteras, Sweden: Vasteras Sinfonietta / James MacMillan
12.5.16 St John's Waterloo, London: Southbank Sinfonia / Jessica Cottis
2nd doubling piccolo
2nd doubling cor anglais
2nd doubling bass clarinet
2nd contrabassoon
glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, bell-tree, bongos, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam